Revising—and Reframing—Your Teaching Philosophy

Article by Tara DaPra

Why should you write a teaching philosophy? Chances are, you already have, even if it was way back in graduate school or when you applied for the job you now hold. But if you are going up for promotion, as many of us in the teaching professor category may now do, or if—happy days—someone nominates you for a teaching award, your teaching philosophy may need updating. You may be dreading this. You may continually move it to the end of a long list of more pressing tasks. You may ask yourself if anyone will really read this. Leonard Cassuto says what many of us are thinking when he writes, “Teaching philosophies account for some of the most tiresome reading that academe has to offer (and that’s saying something).” But must they be? Rather than a chore or a high-stakes assessment, why not re-frame what a teaching philosophy can—or perhaps should—be? What if you instead treated your teaching philosophy as a celebration of your time in the classroom and a vision for the future?

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Lang argues that teaching philosophies “fall under the genre of creative nonfiction,” a genre of writing that privileges techniques like voice, narrative arc, and compelling details while insisting on a non-negotiable commitment to the truth. Lang warns writers of teaching philosophies not to fall into the default mode we so often see in student writing—telling rather than showing. So instead of regurgitating your course learning objectives or points from your CV, Lang advises that we zoom in and describe a day when those objectives were lived in a particularly meaningful way. He writes, “Readers remember and respond to your stories, not your explanations.”

Another hallmark of creative nonfiction is to distinguish between what the writer knows and does not know—and to lean in to the latter. In her essay “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl writes, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.” Teaching philosophies are, essentially, a personal essay, a space for writers to puzzle over a complicated question and attempt to answer it from many angles. The word essay itself means “trial.” What, then, is the question you most want to discover, as it relates to your teaching? What parts of that question have you answered and what parts remain a mystery?

Writing a teaching philosophy can help us to reflect upon and articulate our ideas about what makes for effective teaching. And doing this can help to ensure that what we do in our classes is consistent with those beliefs—but it can also acknowledge pieces of the teaching puzzle that we have yet to fit together. And so, while teaching philosophies should certainly highlight a teacher’s strengths and successes, good teachers might also acknowledge what they hope to learn next.

If you’d like to read more about writing effective and reflective teaching philosophies, CATL has gathered some resources.